A week before Mum died, Dad and I were sat on her bed trying to get our heads around what was happening. Mum was about to go into hospital to have her abdomen drained of the liquid that had built up. This is called ascites and a sure sign that the liver is struggling (although it is only on reflection that I will admit this). Suddenly, everything was feeling a bit out of our control.
I was sat by Mum’s feet at the end of the bed while dad lay next to her. I felt sick. I had butterflies in my tummy that were making me all jittery in anticipation for the conversation that was coming. I wanted to leave the room so I could cry without them seeing. But I also wanted to stay, so I could reassure Mum it would all be ok. What I didn’t want was to be 20 anymore, I wanted to be 6. I wanted to be at an age where you still believe in Father Christmas, and the tooth fairy and the invincibility of your parents. I wanted to give up all responsibility and maturity and lie in my bed watching something until the adults had made everything better again.
On the bed, Mum said if she died, we were to go on a big holiday altogether. She made us promise. I wanted to tell her off for being so silly to suggest that was going to happen. I kept a jokey tone and told her we’ll have the best and biggest holiday and it won’t be such a bad thing that she has died at all because we’ll all be having so much fun. All the while I was pinching the top of my thigh tightly between two nails to stop myself from bursting into tears. Mum smiled as I said this, but I could see her trying not to cry as well.
I eventually left the room to cry upstairs. The conversation was too much to take in. We had never properly said the words ‘if’ and ‘die’ together out loud, with sincerity and so seriously. They had an been unspoken possibility that I had made a good attempt at ignoring. While I was old enough to know parents are not super human, I don’t think I had fully accepted that they can die before they’re meant to. I had this misguided belief that if I didn’t think it, believe it or speak about it, it wouldn’t happen. However, despite all my desperate hoping and wishing, 10 days after this conversation on the end of mum and dad’s bed, the worst did actually happen. Over two years later, the promise I had jokily agreed to came true.
There were many conversations on where we should go. Tom suggested a safari trip because Mum loved big adventures and travelled to Africa a lot for her work. I thought that while an adventure that big sounded fun, I liked the idea of lying on the beach reading, relaxing, eating delicious Asian food and not having to move around so much (I’m not lazy I just wanted calm). Not only that I wanted time for just us 5, and to do a safari privately for three weeks would have cost a LOT of money. After months of conversations and careful planning from Dad, it was decided we would be going on a three-week trip to Singapore, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. We were going to pick Ned up from Singapore, then fly to Sri Lanka and have an adventure travelling around in a minivan for a week, and then have 10 days enjoying the luxuries of an island in the Maldives. We would be going to the same place Mum and Dad had been three months before she died. It sounded like the perfect mixture of adventure, relaxation and comfort.
We had been on holiday altogether since Mum had died but always to a place where we had spent many summers before as a family of six. This would be the first time we would be doing something completely different as our new unit of five. It felt both exciting but daunting. Never before had we gone somewhere so new without Mum there to negotiate packing, planning and travel. She was queen organiser. Give her an overpacked suitcase and she would quickly know how to fold, roll, squeeze and discard until it all fit into place and zipped up easily (‘use the insides of shoes’ was one of her favourite tips). She always carried around a bum bag that was packed so tightly it ended up looking like a small handbag that she had tied around her waist. Inside there would be a supply of anything we might need. Snacks, antibacterial wipes, water (one of those mini bottles), hand sanitiser, tissues, cards (always Uno), passports, boarding passes and then more snacks (when Ned was younger, he was always hungry). Every time she pulled something out, little bits of tissue paper would come out too, covering everything with white crumbs (Mum wasn’t as good at the unpacking of her bumbag as she was with packing it). Needless to say, going on a trip without Mum there directing felt like new territory and was another sore reminder of how much our roles had changed. Dad now took on masterful planning of the trip, I made sure we had a bag of games that I carried around with us everywhere (we have moved on from Uno to Monopoly deal, Rummikub and Boggle) and Ned took charge of making sure he had enough snacks. It felt important to be learning how to be a family of five without Mum there with us.
For my whole life I had said I was from a family of six. It was a huge part of my identity. I am one of four and have always had mum and dad together as a team. When Mum died the fact that we were suddenly a family of five, with Dad now a sole parent, was the most painful acknowledgement of loss. Home didn’t feel like home without Mum there. As much as I could push aside sadness and hold back tears, I couldn’t shift the uncomfortable feeling of being in a rehearsal for our real life, waiting for things to revert back to how they were before. The empty place at the end of our kitchen table was a particularly sore reminder so I started to sit there, so it didn’t look so empty. Car journeys also felt really different because we no longer needed the back seats up in our seven-seater car. This meant we no longer had the traditional who’s-sitting-in-the-back argument and it all felt too easy sitting in a seat without having fought, pushed and shoved for it. Everything at home was tinged with Mum’s missing presence and unless I spent all my time in my room, it was hard to avoid.
Over time this feeling of home being a foreign place has lessened. However, I still find myself much more emotional when all five of us are at home together. Being emotional means being more irritable and this does not bode well with having less space and quiet because of everyone around. Naturally this can result in more arguments. These often originate from normal day to day family chores (who’s walking the dogs) but are underscored and tainted with grief and emotion so suddenly (if I’m in an emotional and tired mood) a simple who’s walking the dogs discussion becomes why are you crying over walking the dogs which becomes why are you now sobbing over walking the dogs (remember this is simplified - I do cry easily but not to that extent!) These discussions unwittingly morph into more acceptable outlets for emotion. It’s much less hopeless to think you’re crying over a disagreement at home than to acknowledge the fact that what you’re really crying about can’t be remedied. So, aside from the obvious excitement about going on holiday, I was also a bit apprehensive about spending so much time intensively together. While our trip would be a proper opportunity to get used to our new family identity and our different manifestations of grief, I was interested in how it would feel going somewhere completely new without Mum there with us.
Apart from this slight apprehension, I was really looking forward to going to a place Mum had been before. After someone dies there are of course no opportunities to make new memories or have any more conversations. All that I have are 20 years with Mum and 46 years of her life to learn about. Any insight into something she experienced is the closest I can get to talking to her about it.
There are occasionally moments when I remember a snippet of a conversation Mum and I had, or I realise there was more to a memory than I first thought. They come unexpectedly, sometimes triggered by a smell or a picture or a dream. I stash it away and hope for another little insight to come soon. It’s hard to describe how such small things take on a huge importance. How exciting it is to find something as simple as a shopping list, scrawled in Mum’s handwriting in the back of a notebook. I read it with complete concentration, and wonder what the list was for and when it was written. I hope for more moments like it and am so comforted when something comes back to me; a reminder that while I won’t make any new memories, there will always be the ones I have to uncover. Going to an island Mum had been before, treading the same ground as her and enjoying the same things she did meant I could more clearly imagine Mum being there. I could never ask her again about that holiday, but I could find out a bit more about it myself and from the memories triggered in Dad.
Instead of describing our amazing holiday in detail I’ve included a few photos of it instead. Suffice to say, it was all perfect (aside from the big fact Mum was missing). Even the (very) few disagreements we had were good because they stayed small and felt grief-free. We got the best of each other and had three precious weeks to make memories as a five that were happy, normal and carefree. We spoke about Mum all time, and always raised our glasses to her in the evening. We would comment on things she would have liked, and things she would have hated. Whenever we ate at a buffet, we would go around the table deciding what Mum would have chosen. We always agreed on a huge salad (she loved salad) and whatever seafood there was. I packed some of Mum’s summer dresses, and every time I had a croissant and morning coffee wearing one of them, I could imagine her doing exactly the same. It felt like the first time I could simultaneously miss Mum fully but not be crippled by it.
I think Mum asking us to have a big holiday altogether was another way of asking us to keep having fun and making happy memories as a family like we would have done before. Her biggest fear was about how we would cope without her there. Whenever we were playing games, bickering over bedrooms and sneaking bread rolls into our bags from the buffet as Mum often got us to do (perfect Ned snacks) I knew she would be happy. It’s not often I can definitely say how Mum would have felt about something now she’s not here, but for the whole three weeks I could imagine exactly how she would feel to see that we were all doing ok without her. I think it would be a mixture of relief (lots of relief), contentment, comfort, but of course sadness that she was missing out on all these memories. However, even though she wasn’t a physical part of each experience, she was the reason the holiday happened in the first place, so every memory happened because of her. I think she’d be very pleased about that.